In El Salvador, extortion demanded by gangs has become so normalized that there is a bus company that deducts the cost of extortion directly from drivers' payroll in order to make an annual payment to the Barrio 18. The drivers understand it: refusing to pay is equivalent to death and reporting the extortion, in a lawless state that has lost all territorial control, would do very little.
In early 2014, a young boy, aged around 12 years old arrived at the terminal. I was having lunch with two friends in a small house nearby where we had parked the buses. The child arrived looking unkempt, in baggy clothes and clutching a piece of paper in his hand.
"Here, they sent you this letter," the boy said, leaving the paper before setting off.
The letter's message was eminently clear, "From today, all bus drivers must give us a special contribution of their salary if they do not want attacks against their lives. Signed: Barrio 18."
One of us there took the paper to the bus route manager. The amount of money requested was exceptionally high for each driver to have to pay. I don't remember well if it was maybe $200 or $300. Immediately our boss called a meeting and the following day we spoke about it.
This story was told by a bus driver from a company in San Salvador's metropolitan area. The route, like nearly all others in Salvador, has been blackmailed for years by two most notorious criminal organizations in El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. However, this bus route has a particularly unscrupulous story: it decided to institutionalize the extortion, brazenly including it on the payrolls of its employees.
Telling this story, the driver explained, is risky. Speaking in detail about what happens on his route could mean (if he has good luck) immediate dismissal, or (with less luck) death. For this reason, he has asked that his name and the name of his bus route not be divulged.
There was not much to discuss. The drivers on the route know that we must give the gangs what they ask for. The other option is to refuse which is basically signing our own death sentence.
The boss explained the situation to all of us and said that he was going to call a negotiator from Barrio 18 in the area to whom the extortion is to be paid, to try to get the cost lowered. We then realized that this information had been leaked. They knew that our route had benefits and that we are paid bonuses, so they decided to impose a fee on us too.
From then on we were told that we would be charged twice a year to pay a fee to the gang. In total, it's $100 per driver per year. The deduction from our salary to be paid to the gang is written directly on our payslips. There it clearly states "Extortion Mara 18."
Luckily we have a saving scheme in place for this. We are discounted $3 or $4 a day, which we save and are given back at the end of the year. Those savings are how we make the two payments for the extortion.
Our route has 46 drivers and 13 other staff members. We all get charged the two fees per year. If you do the math, how much is $100 for 43 drivers plus the other 13? Thousands! And that's only on this route. Can you imagine how much they make across all the routes in the country?
The driver doesn't know this, but some bus companies have daringly calculated an "official figure" of extortion in the country, a payment of around $26 million a year -- as said earlier this year by René Velasco, one of the businessmen who represents the transport sector before the National Council on Citizen Security and Coexistance.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
According to Velasco, this figure was obtained by multiplying the average amount of extortion demanded by the 10,500 vehicles that make up the national transport fleet. "Usually, people get on the bus and threaten the driver. They ask for between $10 and $50 each week," Velasco estimated according to La Prensa Grafica.
You always feel terrible. Imagine what I could do with the other $100? I have children, a wife, a family to feed. It takes so much to earn that money, which they just take away from us.
It doesn't stop making us angry seeing a kid arriving to take our money. A kid that could well be any of us! But, what can you do? Nothing. They'll kill you.
The route I work for is being extorted enormously. I have been working there for more than five years and when I started I wasn't young. It was the same with the other routes where I worked before. However, the difference is that on the other routes the gang members would go up to drivers and charge them a daily amount. It was only $1 or $2, depending on the gang and the area.
For example, on the previous route I worked, they sent a small package for money with one of the drivers that was departing. "There you are going to go to the gas station and you are going to order this. Hand it over there." In the gas station, a strange kid came over and asked if they had sent the package. Someone gave him the bag of money and he got off the bus. Composed.
Here it is different. Here the gang sends different people to the terminal who ask directly for the boss. Stating their full name, they say, "I've come to bring the 'thing,'" and the bus route gives them the monthly payment. The messengers are bold and impertinent, not even afraid or hiding their identities.
This doesn't happen on just this route. It happens on a multitude. But nobody likes to talk about it. It's too dangerous. If you go to another route and tell the driver, you have to pretend that you are interested in getting work there and ask how much each driver is charged for extortion. If the young man is sincere, he'll tell you, you don't need to outsmart him to find out.
I don't know if all the bus companies will put the extortion fee on their employees' payroll, but I assume if they are proper companies they would have to say it on the payslips as they do here.
I don't understand it entirely, but the gang that receives the most money from us is Mara Salvatrucha because we go through quite a few areas controlled by them. But, as we also go through areas controlled by Barrio 18, we also have to pay them. I mean, we're really fucked up.
The good thing is that at least they don't kill us. It's always hard to have your money taken when it has cost you so much. But, I can say to my wife in the morning "I'll be back in the evening." I tell her that if we don't pay them every day, "I don't know if I'm going to return home later."
One piece of information that confirms what the driver said, which he probably doesn't even know about, is that about 800 transport employees (drivers, conductors and other workers) were killed between 2005 and 2014, according to the newspaper El Diario de Hoy.
Report it to the police? No! That would be most foolish thing we could ever do! Have you seen the movie called, "Sleeping with the Enemy?" Well, that's how it is with us. We live surrounded by gang members. They are everywhere. They go up to the vehicles, they are near the bus stops, and they have people by the areas where we pass through. If they wanted to kill us, it wouldn't cost them anything. They can easily find out if you file a complaint.
Just being here and talking with you about this topic is very risky. It's risky because today you don't know whom you're talking to, nor who's nearby listening to what you say. As the guys say, "See, hear and shut up if you want to enjoy life."
That's why I tell you, if you want, go to the terminal and ask for the manager. He can give you more information. Although if you go to the terminal, I recommend you go by car. Do not go by bus because there are kids who work for the gangs that are well-informed and notice who arrives. What I can tell you is that it's on the payroll, as I've already told you, it's the reality.
And no, I do not think this will change soon. I have had years and years of this being the same, yet every time it gets worse. Here, it is already becoming normalized.
Factum visited the offices of the route where the driver works. A security worker greeted them kindly and passed on their message to the manager's secretary. After a few minutes of waiting, without asking what Factum had come for, the manager told them that he was leaving and that they should look for him later.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador
Two days later, Factum phoned the offices on the route and asked if an interview could be arranged. The secretary answered and said yes, but her boss wanted to know the subject first. The answer was about gang's collecting extortion, the secretary said she would consult with the manager.
Monday November 7, Factum called again to the offices of the route. The secretary said that the manager was out of the office all week. Three days later, on Thursday 11, Factum called again and asked to at least give us a brief interview on the phone.
The manager answered.
"I'm calling from Factum magazine. We have been trying to have an interview with you, but it hasn't been possible."
"What do you want to talk about."
"The subject is extortion. We want to know how you handle this problem."
"No, no. I cannot say anything about that."
"We have information that you deduct extortion from your employees on the payroll."
"And who gave you that information?"
"A source, I cannot tell you the name, but we'd like to talk to you in person…"
"No no no. Look, talk to the person who has told you that. Ask him everything."
The manager hung up. After several unanswered calls, the secretary answered again to say that her boss could no longer speak.